An overwhelmed outback vet dealing with dozens of sick and dying dogs is pleading with travellers and tourists to be aware of a devastating, exotic tick-borne disease that can be prevented.

Key points:

  • A flying vet fears travellers with dogs ignorant of ehrlichiosis could cause an explosion in cases by carrying diseased brown ticks with them
  • He says grey nomads and young travellers don’t have the appropriate prevention to stop their dogs getting sick
  • The bacteria seeks out bone marrow, the kidney and liver, comparable to radiation sickness

Authorities do not know how ehrlichiosis entered the country.

But since the notifiable disease was identified in the Kimberley region in May 2020, it has infected dogs across northern Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and into the far north of South Australia.

A vet holding a tiny puppy.

Flying vet Dr Campbell Costello is pleading with travellers to protect their dogs from ticks.(

Supplied: Outback & Airborne Veterinary Services.

)

Dr Campbell Costello from Outback and Airborne Veterinary Services fears travellers with dogs who are ignorant of ehrlichiosis, could cause an explosion in cases by carrying diseased brown ticks with them.

“We are seeing a lot of people movements through the dry season, grey nomads and young travellers that are bringing their pets and don’t have the appropriate prevention to stop their dogs getting sick,” the flying vet said.

“They just haven’t heard of it. My veterinary colleagues hadn’t heard of it.

“It won’t be a case of ‘oh it’s an indigenous community problem or a bush problem’, it can be an urban Australian dog that can be sick. It will venture into Sydney, Brisbane, Cairns, Byron Bay, all those areas.”

A puppy in the dirt with cloudy eyes.

Cloudy eyes are another symptom of ehrlichiosis.(

Supplied: Dr Campbell Costello

)

Victoria has had one case and dogs travelling into Tasmania now have to be declared tick free.

Most recently, a Queensland dog that travelled through the top end was confirmed with the disease.

A map of Australia with a dotted line in the middle.

Most brown dog ticks live above the dotted line, but Dr Campbell Costello fears the disease could spread further south.(

Supplied: Biosecurity Tasmania

)

“This bacteria (Ehrlichia canis) seeks out bone marrow, kidney, liver, it’s comparable to radiation sickness,” Dr Costello said.

Clinical signs include bleeding from the nose, bleeding into the lungs, a high temperature, and dogs being off their food.

Showing the white jaundiced gum of a diseased dog.

Anaemia, fever, lethargy, weight loss and unusual bleeding or bruising are all symptoms of ehrlichiosis.(

Supplied: Dr Campbell Costello, Outback and Airborne Veterinary Services

)

Joyce and Robin Hughes who were camped with their fox terrier Ollie by the banks of the Thomson River, just outside Longreach had never heard of ehrlichiosis.

“Never, never, what is it?” Ms Hughes asked, having travelled from a tick free area.

Preventable disease

Kevin and Sue Brown, travelling with Russ the labrador, were aware of ehrlichiosis.

“I’ve seen photos of dogs affected with that disease and with that tick and it’s just horrendous. We don’t want him to go through that,” Ms Brown said.

They protect Russ with both a monthly tick tablet and a repellent tick collar, a combination that Dr Costello also recommended.

Couple sit in front of their caravan giving their labrador lots of love.

Travellers Kevin and Sue Brown are protecting Russ the labrador from ehrlichiosis with a tick collar and tick tablets.(

ABC News: Daniel Prosser

)

The flying vet said chewable tablets were insufficient, because they take up to five hours to kill a tick.

Caravan Industry Association of Australia marketing manager Keelan Howard is working with a travelling vet on an awareness campaign to reach tens of thousands of travellers via email and social media.

“I’m sure the majority of people love their animals, it’s more of an awareness and education challenge right now.”

A sign saying apex riverside bush camp Longreach with caravans behind it.

Travellers with dogs have potential to spread the deadly ehrlichiosis disease.(

ABC News: Daniel Prosser

)

Queensland’s chief vet Dr Allison Crook said the infected dog detected in North Queensland survived the disease.

Biosecurity concerns

Dr Costello said the disease outbreak was proof that more money needed to be spent on biosecurity surveillance in the bush.

“There are more and more vets leaving the industry, there are more and more of these diseases on our front line and there’s less and less funding for it,” he said.

“We’re concerned about African swine fever, African horse sickness, foot and mouth, screw worm fly, or rabies entering the country.”

Best protection from tick-borne ehrlichiosis is prevention, says flying vet tackling surge
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